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NPR Hires Key Staff For Local News Effort; Finalizes Station List

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The funding is still being finalized but NPR is putting the pieces in place for a summer launch of its ambitious local news effort, known internally as Project Argo. Named by digital head Kinsey Wilson with Jason and the Argonauts in mind, this project is in search of a different kind of golden fleece — armed with $3 million in foundation support and a dozen stations committed to in-depth topical coverage of issues with broad national relevance and a strong local focus. Wilson’s explains what NPR hopes to accomplish: “We want to demonstrate that we can build both authority and audience around the coverage of particular beats in these communities.”

Argo also needs its own dedicated team, technology and structure, aspects that will kick into high gear in early 2010 when the first Argo staffers join NPR. USA Today vet Joel Sucherman starts as project director Jan. 11, while the Knight Foundation’s Matt Thompson, co-producer of viral hit Epic 2004, joins as editorial product manager Feb. 1. (Two more positions are left to fill on the core Argo team: lead technology architect and a front-end designer/developer.) Sucherman started in radio; his time at USAT, where Wilson also was before NPR, included founding USAT‘s online audio and video unit, as well as more recent work building vertical communities.

The stations that will take part are set, although NPR has yet to finalize which topic each will cover in depth. Sucherman and Thompson will work with the stations to refine their proposals while the team starts to build out the player and publishing platform Argo will use. Once the topics are in place — examples offered are green energy, health care, and immigration — Argo will start hiring blogger-reporters for each market. KPBS (San Diego); KPCC (Southern California); KQED (San Francisco); KALW (San Francisco); OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting); KPLU (Tacoma/Seattle); MPR (Minnesota Public Radio); WAMU (DC); WXPN (Philadelphia) ; WNYC (New York); WBUR (Boston); and WGBH (Boston).

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Knight Foundation are providing $3 million for the first two-year phase. Participating stations had committed to covering part of the costs of the project during this phase, and supporting it on their own after that.

Wilson sees Argo as a way of trying to replace what newspapers have traditionally provided. “Do you do it comprehensively across the board on all topics the way newspapers have or a little more selectively, realizing there are a broader number of news organizations?” Instead of one trying to do it all, difference outlets can focus on certain topics or aspects. Argo includes a strong emphasis on collaboration.

But he’s careful to explain: “We’re not betting the farm on one approach. This is a very big effort but it’s going to take a variety of different efforts to figure out what constitutes local presence.” Argo’s coverage isn’t meant to be at expense of traditional topics like politics and education. That’s one reason why it’s a funded project, to make sure stations can afford to a dedicated blogger-reporters and the right kind of technology.

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